By the time Pound’s ABC of Reading was published, the Victorian mode in poetry had clearly been superseded by the innovations of the moderns. Those experiments most notably included the development of the Imagist movement with T. E. Hulme as its first theorist. Ezra Pound had become associated with Hulme’s Poets’ Club, and concurrently with Imagism, in 1909. By 1914, he had moved into a post-Imagist phase with his concept of vorticism, with its inherent focus on action and movement, a reaction to the static nature of Imagism. At about the same time, Pound was being profoundly influenced by Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, resulting in the use of the ideogrammic method in poetry.
Apart from the literary scene, Ezra Pound had lived through the World War I years utterly convinced that war is a consequence of the deterioration of humanistic values and, as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “for him, authentic art has a direct relation to human society: it is the symptom of a healthy society.” Thus, whether in poetry or in his critical statements, Pound doggedly sought to do his part in “putting things right,” albeit unaware that his readers had not necessarily shared his experiences and did not possess his vast store of knowledge, especially of languages and literature.
When ABC of Reading appeared, it was received by an audience already familiar with Ezra Pound and much of his work. Indeed, having published much of his poetry, other than the Cantos, as well as a majority of his critical works, his reputation as a poet, critic, and translator had been established. Actually, ABC of Reading is, according to Pound himself, an attempt to “meet the need for fuller and simpler explanation of the method outlined in How to Read.” Both of these books, which focus on how one should study poetry, foreshadow a third volume, Guide to Kulchur, published in 1938. In terms of chronology, ABC of Reading falls almost in the middle of Pound’s literary career, although in terms of quantity, it is well past the halfway mark.
Not alone among Pound’s works in receiving mixed reviews, ABC of Reading may not have achieved all that Pound wished it to achieve, but its often perceptive statements make it worthy of perhaps more attention than it has sometimes received.